Column: Taking the fall for Jameis Winston

Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston appears at the Legislature last week for Florida State Day, honoring FSU’s national football championship.

Associated Press

Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston appears at the Legislature last week for Florida State Day, honoring FSU’s national football championship.

Lawyer up and don't talk. That's the lesson of the latest disquieting developments related to the sexual assault allegations against Jameis Winston, star quarterback at Florida State University.

A fellow student accused Winston of raping her, when she was too drunk to consent, back in December 2012. It took 11 months for the police to pass the case to Tallahassee prosecutors. A month after that, the state attorney decided not to charge Winston, saying there wasn't enough evidence. Winston went on to win the national championship for FSU and pick up a Heisman Trophy.

I had nagging questions about the state attorney's decision, because I think the victim's allegations are awfully plausible. And I think it's fishy that the cops delayed the case for so long. They say the victim refused to cooperate; her lawyer says otherwise. There are a bunch of unknowns, but here's something more certain: FSU's recent move to charge two of Winston's friends and teammates with five violations of the school's code of conduct in relation to the case — but not Winston — is exactly backward.

FSU has a legal obligation to investigate the woman's allegations, independent of the police, under the federal law Title IX. That is as it should be. But shouldn't the university have started this back in December 2012, when the allegations were first made? And now that they have finally gotten moving, here's what has happened.

In late January of this year, after Winston won the championship with his team and the season ended — I'd like to say I think after is a coincidence, but I don't — university officials sat down with Winston to question him about the rape allegations. He said his lawyer had advised him not to answer questions. Smart man. FSU concluded that there was not enough evidence to charge Winston with violating Title IX. I will note here that the university's standard is different from the criminal one: not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but "responsible" or "not responsible."

Exit Winston — but enter his friends and teammates, Chris Casher and Ronald Darby. Actually, they showed up in this story in December 2013, when Winston was under investigation, and they backed him up. With fanfare from Winston's lawyer, Casher and Darby provided statements to the police about the night of the alleged rape. They said that they looked in the room where Winston and the woman were together, and saw consensual sex. Casher also said he asked if he could join in, the woman said "get out," and then he started taping her and Winston on his phone. Darby added that the woman "was casual and 'chill.' "

I don't find any of this especially credible. So maybe it's not so bad that based on their own words, FSU is now charging Casher and Darby with five violations of the school's code for "conduct of a sexual nature that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment for another person" and "acts that invade the privacy of another person," and, in Casher's case, "recording of images without consent."

Maybe I shouldn't waste my sympathy on these guys. And yet, this just seems messed up. If the woman was raped, then what these guys did is bad but secondary, and the university should start by punishing Winston. And if she wasn't raped, then Casher and Darby acted like jerks, but they are only in trouble because they came forward to help their friend. They are taking the fall and he walks away.

Is that because they're expendable? Casher, a reserve defensive end, didn't play in FSU's last three games of the season. Darby, a defensive back, sounds like a stronger player, but he's still not Winston.

Both Casher and Darby are awaiting a hearing and could be expelled. They could also just be reprimanded. Honestly, at this point I can't think of an outcome that won't feel sordid. The U.S. Education Department has opened an investigation into whether FSU's handling of this case itself violated Title IX. Good. I'd like to know what roles coaches, athletic personnel and other school officials played. I'd especially like to know whether and how the school intervenes when the Tallahassee police investigates athletes.

This case is not over. Jameis Winston will surely move on to pro football. But FSU isn't going anywhere.

Emily Bazelon is the author of "Sticks and Stones."

© 2014 Slate

Column: Taking the fall for Jameis Winston 04/06/14 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2014 5:56pm]

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